The International Writers
BBC Radio 4
With Aids: Britains Battle
A 2006 Whistledown production for BBC Radio
Presented by Paul Gambaccini
Review by Rosie Wheatcroft
is the first thing you think of when you hear the word AIDS (acquired
immune deficiency syndrome)? In my limited knowledge, I think
of the falling tombstone emblazoned with the words dont
die of ignorance, morbid leaflets in a GP waiting room,
Africa, and rather ashamedly, a scene from Team America; World
Because of my ignorance, I listened intently to this two-part BBC Radio
4 documentary, and came away from the radio feeling both informed and
saddened. The presenter, Paul Gambaccini, provides an emotive yet objective
view on the social impact that AIDS has on Britain, focusing on public
ignorance, and the way in which it changed and developed after the death
of much loved rock star, Freddie Mercury.
The programme starts with two men reminiscing about the lively gay scene
in Britain in the seventies. An image of fashion, decadence, and hedonistic
indulgence without guilt is painted so vividly, even I wanted to be a
gay man taking part the popper-fuelled Village People dance orgy they
talked about. The tone of the documentary then soberly shifted into quiet
reflection, as a man named Rupert tells of his partners untimely, and
then undiagnosed, death from AIDS.
Centred in the eighties, the documentary goes on to tell of the fear which
bubbled under the surface of society as AIDS became more prominent and
mysterious. The medical world and public alike were both uncertain as
to how the HIV virus was spread, and the ensuing paranoia was remarkable.
Nick Partridge, one of the first members of staff at the Terence Higgins
Trust, manned the help lines for those concerned about AIDS. Partridge
tells of daily death threats and abuse from ill-informed homophobes. BT
engineers even refused to carry out repair work on the busy lines because
of fear they would catch the disease. But perhaps the most spectacular
display of public ignorance was the phone call from an elderly lady who
was scared her beloved cat would catch AIDS if it were to bite a gay man.
Discouragingly, this lack of compassion for those afflicted with AIDS
stretched further than the ill-informed public, with the head of the Metropolitan
police at the time, James Anderton, claiming that the rise of AIDS was
a resulting human cesspit of their own making. Hardly inspiring
an understanding approach to this fatal disease.
In the second episode, Gambaccini presents us with the national reactions
to deaths among the famous. Sadly, there remains a sense of confusion
still, and not resolution and understanding. This two part series was
created in response to the 25th anniversary of the first reported death
from AIDS, and the nostalgic memories seek to remind us not only of the
fear felt at the time, but of the progress the nation has made in understanding
and treating this fatal disease.
Produced by the excellent Whistledown production company, the documentary
presents many perspectives of those affected by AIDS, and Gambaccini seamlessly
guides the direction of the programme with succinct cohesion. For such
an emotionally charged subject, there is a pleasing lack of sensationalism
I suspect the rest of the lazy weekend audience will be as impressed as
I was with this informative and poignant documentary.
© Rosie Wheatcroft
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